The world of Dark Souls is not a happy world. It’s a place gripped by a cycle of death and rebirth, a violent combustion of life amid slow, lingering deaths. It’s a world where even the cities of the gods are desolate and lifeless, filled only with mindless monsters and hungry dead thirsting for souls. Even if the First Flame is restored and life continues on, there is no end to it. Any world created by one of Dark Souls’ denizens would reflect their soul-destroying environment.

The Ashes of Ariandel, the first DLC for Dark Souls III, takes us to one such world; a frozen, snow-swept land of rotting monsters, lost wanderers, and bare flames. Found in the Cleansing Chapel of the Cathedral of the Deep, The Painted World of Ariandel provides a new area for players already near the end of the Dark Souls III experience.

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For anyone who played the original Dark Souls, returning to a Painted World holds a special significance. While I don’t remember the DS1‘s Painted World of Ariamis too fondly (it was originally the demo area), Dark Souls III‘s version provided a much better experience. From the cackling corvid-feathered mutant welcoming you to the world, to emerging from the cave into the windswept snowfields and rough pine forests, this feels more like entering a new world. Crossing the rope bridge to the tall shrine brought back memories of Dark Souls to overlook the entire rocky cliffside, the ruined tower in the distance and the crumbling settlement below.

If it seems like a lot of this is a throwback to previous Souls games, it is. There are plenty of references to Dark Souls I and II in terms of theme and concept, as expected. Dark Souls III is largely a game about such references, and much like how it took an obscure bit of lore and turned it into an entire optional area, so does The Ashes of Ariandel. The bosses are references to previous games in terms of moves and style, and while that might irk some, the fights themselves and the way they’re used is wonderful.

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All of the areas I saw from that vista, I explored. A ruined tower in the distance led me to being crushed under a towering warrior’s axe amid the bodies of its long-fallen comrades. Craggy bluffs hide more torch-wielding Undead intent on making me return to my bonfire to start again. The Painted World’s design is in top form, with plenty of side areas and alternate pathways to give shortcuts for the inevitable return from death. I went back even after finishing off the bosses to explore the side-paths and experimented with secrets I’d learned previously to unlock more breathtaking areas filled with monsters.

The creature design, and the story by extension, was my favourite element. Dark Souls games tell their stories subtly through item descriptions, level design, and the monsters themselves, making you pay attention to the design choices. The frightened, rotting bird people in their crumbling city, or the weapons and armour of the wandering, hulking brutes tells the story of a land of exiles, slowly decaying away amid the cold and ice. The Ashes of Ariandel could best be described as beautifully grotesque, corrupted and tainted—and there’s a need for purification.

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The weapons, in addition to following the narrative, are also unique in their special mechanics. Most of the new equipment possesses weapons skills that emulate their enemy wielders, such as a torch that allows you to breathe jets of flame. One of the bosses’ signatures weapons is my absolute favourite, making me consider respecing my stats to better use it. There’s also a few more Frost-based weapons and spells—fitting with the location—and filling in a dearth of frost-statted equipment in the main Dark Souls III world. Frost isn’t exactly the best status ailment, reducing defense and status, but it tends to break guards and hurt others. It’s a good addition to the game regardless, and having more variation to use in player-versus-player is always good as well.

Enemies have always been more aggressive in Dark Souls III than in previous games, and the DLC provides in this regard. I didn’t find them too hard for my pyromancer build (fire, appropriately enough, seemed particularly effective), though being cautious certainly helped. The bosses, however, were particularly challenging—the signature enemy was a long, complicated fight, requiring careful management of resources and strategy. Beating it took most of my review time and tested my skillset and strategy, and left me with access to a new competitive arena with adjustable criteria that I, sadly, couldn’t get to work during my review.

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After exploring the Painted world, I found myself wanting more. The story ends on a cliffhanger for one of the biggest unexplained lore points of the universe, and several trips through old areas proved fruitless in discovering anything at this time. The cold world may be important again in the next DLC, and I hope to put the weapons and the experiences I learned there to the test. The Ashes of Ariandel breathed new life into a game that was already strong and vital, and set the stage for the final chapter in its dark saga.